The series sponsor is new but the racing in the season opener of the Falken Polo Cup was as exciting as ever. Picture: SUPPLIED
The series sponsor is new but the racing in the season opener of the Falken Polo Cup was as exciting as ever. Picture: SUPPLIED

The Falken Polo Cup lived up to its reputation as the country’s most exciting racing formula when the 2019 season began with two action-packed races in KwaZulu-Natal on Saturday.

When the dust settled at the scenic Dezzi Raceway near Port Shepstone on the south coast, the two race victories were shared between current champion Jeffrey Kruger and former champion Chris Shorter.

With all the cars in this one-make series now shod with Falken tyres from the new series sponsor, Bradley Liebenberg started race one on pole but lost a number of positions in the first corner, opening the door for Kruger — and that was all the defending champion needed. With a clear track ahead of him, Kruger put in a series of consistent laps to build a comfortable lead of more than six seconds by the chequered flag.

Behind him Jason Campos won a frenetic fight for second place from Shorter and series debutant Stiaan Kriel, with Liebenberg recovering to finish fifth.

The second race led to some paint being swapped and a few moments that had members of the crowd gasping for air, but 10 eventful laps later it was former champion Shorter who saw the chequered flag first. He crossed the line ahead of Liebenberg, Kruger, Keegan Campos and Kriel.

“It was an incredible weekend of racing,” said Mike Rowe, head of Volkswagen Motorsport. “If this opening weekend was anything to go by, we are all in for a very exciting and intense season.”

The next round of the Falken Polo Cup will take place on April 5 and 6 at the Zwartkops Raceway, west of Pretoria.

Volkswagen Motorsport left the Dezzi Raceway as the manufacturer points leader in the Global Touring Car Series and the GTC2 category.

Audi’s Simon Moss won the first race from VW’s Keagan Masters, who was celebrating his 19th birthday, while VW’s Daniel Rowe snatched third place from Robert Wolk (BMW) on the final corner of the last lap.

Liebenberg, making his debut, won the GTC2 category from his team-mate Adrian Wood.

The organisers reversed the grid for the second race, with Moss coming through again to win in his Audi, just 1.3 seconds ahead of Michael van Rooyen, who was second in the Gazoo Toyota Corolla. Van Rooyen’s participation at Dezzi Raceway marked a historic return to track racing for Toyota, which last entered a factory team in 2002 in Class B of the SA Production Car Championship.

VW’s Rowe was third again, after fighting his way through from the back of the reversed starting grid.

Liebenberg won the GTC2 class for a second time after Wood, who led most of the race but went wide on the last corner.

Ferrari is quickest, says Hamilton

Ferrari could be half a second quicker than Formula One champions Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton said last Friday as Sebastian Vettel set the fastest time so far on the last day of preseason testing.

The Briton, who has won four of his five titles with Mercedes since joining from McLaren at the end of 2012, told reporters at the Circuit de Catalunya he faced a tough challenge.

“I think the gap is potentially half a second, something like that,” said Hamilton.

Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel during testing in Barcelona last week. Picture: REUTERS
Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel during testing in Barcelona last week. Picture: REUTERS

Vettel’s best lap for Ferrari before lunchtime was the fastest time from eight days of testing  — a lap of one minute 16.221 seconds on the softest C5 tyres. That was one hundredth quicker than team-mate Charles Leclerc’s previous best of 1:16.231 on Thursday.

The season starts in Australia on March 17.

Hamilton’s Finnish team-mate Valtteri Bottas was second-fastest on Friday morning with a time of 1:16.561, also on the C5 rubber and the first time Mercedes had targeted a truly quick time after days of going through their programmes.

“This is going to be the toughest battle yet … their [Ferrari’s] pace is very good at the moment,” said Hamilton, winner of 11 races in 2018 to Vettel’s five.

“Last year they arrived with a car working well, but they have done even better this year. It’s OK. We don’t mind the challenge, it just means we have to work harder. I’m not worried or disappointed or anything,” he said.

Vettel won the first two races of the season in 2018 and for a while it seemed that Ferrari had a car to challenge dominant Mercedes. Ferrari’s bid for a first title in a decade unravelled in the second part of the campaign, however, with mistakes by both Vettel and the team.

They have since changed the line-up, with Leclerc replacing 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen, and Mattia Binotto has taken over from Maurizio Arrivabene as principal.

Mercedes have been putting in plenty of laps and sounded more positive on Thursday when Hamilton and Bottas did full race distances.

“Hopefully from this week we will gain another 0.1 seconds from our understanding of the car,” said Hamilton.

“But we don’t know because everyone has different engine modes and fuel loads. Melbourne will be the first time we get a sight of it and then it will be four races before we really know where we stand.”

Russian Daniil Kvyat, in the Honda-powered Toro Rosso, was third-fastest in 1:16.898.